This book recounts, for the first time, as extraordinary a story as I have ever read, or heard of; and were the author other than the illustrious historian of the Russian revolution, Professor Richard Pipes of Harvard, I would be tempted to dismiss it as too preposterous to bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth. It tells the story of one Alexander Pell, a late 19th-century Russian immigrant to the United States. Having gained a PhD in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University in 1897, Pell was recommended by his tutor to the newly established University of South Dakota built in the frontier town of Vermillion. The recommendations said that Pell was a first-class mathematician who could command a good position almost anywhere in the east were it not for his Russian brogue, to which the reply came: "Send your Russian mathematician along, brogue and all."
In the event, the young Russian immigrant was an unqualified success. According to Pipes, the 25 March 1901 issue of Volante, the school newspaper, reported on Dr and Mrs Pell entertaining the class of which he was class father. "From the head of the table beamed the jolly countenance of 'Jolly Little Pell' cracking jokes faster than the freshmen could crack nuts." One alumnus recalled: "Dr Pell occupied a unique position in the hearts and minds of his students. They respected him profoundly, yet they felt his personal friendship so true that they were at liberty to counsel with him with reference to their personal problems. He was one of the most human men I have ever known." The university's Alumni Quarterly said of Pell that he "knew the students in closer good comradeship than any other member of the faculty".
Then in 1908 - his Russian wife having died - Pell resigned from South Dakota University to take up a job at the Armour Institute of Engineering in Chicago, so as to be near his new American wife who was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, before moving to Bryn Mawr, where she chaired the mathematics department and later became one of America's leading female mathematicians. Then, in 1921, Degaev died peacefully in bed and his widow established a fund in his name at the University of South Dakota, which to this day pays out a modest scholarship.
So much for the admirable Dr Pell, whose life in the US was undoubtedly a model of rectitude, both private and public. But as Pipes, delving into the Russian archives, has discovered, Pell in his previous incarnation in Russia as Sergei Degaev had been a notorious terrorist, police informer and accomplice of and witness to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Pipes pursues Degaev on a twisting journey that takes him from relatively humble middle-class family circumstances to membership of the most romantically glamorous terrorist organisation, the People's Will, and shows his increasing bitterness at his failure to rise to the top in that exclusive organisation. Degaev himself was soon imprisoned, but by turning police informant and betraying those he knew in the revolutionary movement, he negotiated his own release. When, later, he confessed his duplicity, he avoided execution at the hands of revolutionaries by helping to murder the head of the tsar's secret police, Colonel Georgii Sudeikin.
Seldom can there have been a double life of more startling contrasts: one half a murderous, duplicitous terrorist and spy and the other half an American version of Mr Chips - the second half never at any point intersecting with, or even converging with, the other. Did Degaev/Pell suffer from a split personality? Or was his dissimilar behaviour on the two continents the natural result of maturation of a man who was in his early twenties when living in Russia, and in his forties when in South Dakota? Or was he perhaps trying in middle age, with good deeds, to atone for the evils he had committed in his youth? Were the conditions of freedom that he encountered in America so different from the ones he had met in Russia as to transform him into a different human being? Pipes does not even try to answer these questions, preferring to suggest, in line with Joseph Conrad, that the Russian personality is so enigmatic that a westerner cannot ever hope to penetrate it. This is disappointing, since Pipes is no more a westerner than was Conrad himself.
No, the Degaev/Pell riddle is left unresolved. But there is much else to make up for this failure. I was particularly interested, for example, at the evidence given here of the extent to which a career in both terrorism and anti-terrorism in tsarist Russia was seen as a way of escaping from the bourgeois confines of the middle class up into the great open horizons enjoyed by aristocrats. Both Degaev, the terrorist leader, and Colonel Sudeikin, the head of the anti-terrorist gendarmerie chose these careers faute de mieux: as the next best thing for those to whom access to the smart regiments was not an option. Also their willingness to consider betraying their respective organisations seems to have sprung from feelings of bitterness at their failure to have won a place in high society. Upward social mobility: oh what crimes have been committed in thy name!
This is a book full of strange insights. Every page - of which, alas, there are only 133 excluding notes and index - contains a nugget. It can also be read for thrills. The account of Degaev's murder of his friend and fellow conspirator, Colonel Sudeikin, is about as gory and gruesome as anything in Dostoevsky. One gathers that Pipes has retired from teaching - a pity since, judging from this gripping essay, he, too, like Dr Pell, "could entertain the class".
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph